Norman Brokaw, who went from mailroom to mogul during a lifetime spent at the William Morris Agency, has died. He was 89.
Brokaw, who had a decades-long, fruitful association with the now-embattled Bill Cosby while also representing the likes of Marilyn Monroe, Barbara Stanwyck and Clint Eastwood, died Saturday in Beverly Hills after a long illness, according to his son, David.
As the architect of the WMA television department in the 1950s, Brokaw convinced a skeptical Hollywood to get into the small-screen business, a decision that opened up lucrative new avenues for his Oscar-winning client, actress Loretta Young, and others.
Later, Brokaw branched the agency into such unexplored areas as sports (Mark Spitz, Henry Aaron), politics (Gerald and Betty Ford, Alexander Haig, Nancy Pelosi) and news (Oliver North, Marcia Clark), realizing that talent could be unearthed from just about anywhere.
It all began for Brokaw in July 1943, when at age 15 he was offered a mailroom job at WMA in its Los Angeles office by Johnny Hyde, his uncle and a partner in the company. He took home $21.40 a week after taxes.
In February 1989, Brokaw was elected WMA president and CEO (succeeding Lee Stevens, who had just died of lymphoma), and two years later he added the title of chairman, replacing Lou Weiss.
Brokaw surrendered the CEO crown in 1997 upon turning 70 and eventually became chairman emeritus. And after William Morris announced a merger with Endeavor in April 2009, his take of the deal was a reported $4.25 million.
In 2010, Brokaw was the recipient of the Governors Award from the TV Academy.
Said David Geffen, who like Brokaw and another media mogul, Barry Diller, began at William Morris: “Norman Brokaw like many of us started out in the mailroom at William Morris, but the difference is he came first and paved the way for the rest of us.”
Brokaw’s survivors include his sons David, Sandy (they are twins) and Joel, founders in 1976 of the publicity firm The Brokaw Co., which represents Cosby (David Brokaw has been the comedian's publicist for more than four decades); his wife Marguerite; and daughters Barbara, Lauren and Wendy.
New to L.A. from New York and just a kid, Brokaw was mentored by Abe Lastfogel, like Hyde a partner at the firm (Lastfogel also had started out in the mailroom at a very young age). Agent Ben Holzman, who handled Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor and The Marx Brothers, befriended the youngster.
Brokaw became the company’s first trainee at age 20, then became a secretary to agents Moe Sackin, Murray File and Joe Schoenfeld, the future editor of Variety.
Brokaw drove Lana Turner to meet MGM studio chief Louis. B. Mayer and took Monroe (who was discovered by the much older Hyde and dated him) to her acting coach on the Fox lot. Later, while having lunch with Monroe at the Brown Derby in Hollywood, he introduced her to her future husband, New York Yankees center fielder Joe DiMaggio.
Brokaw had dinner on Monday and Friday nights with Lastfogel, who said to him one day, “We’re going to start working with something called television. I’d like you to start our TV department,” Brokaw recalled in David Rensin’s 2007 book The Mailroom: Hollywood History From the Bottom Up.
Brokaw went on to rep such clients as Kim Novak, Natalie Wood, Susan Hayward, Danny Thomas, Andy Griffith, Barbara Walters, Donna Summer, Mary Hart, Priscilla Presley, Ivana Trump, Berry Gordy, C. Everett Koop, Helen Reddy and Natalie Gulbis.
"Norman Brokaw was my friend and my agent for many years," Gordy said in a statement. "He combined those two roles with warmth, humor, true friendship and a rare talent for people — knowing who did what best and how to put them together for success.
"Among other things, he started me in the movie business by putting me together with [director] Sidney Furie on [the 1972 film] Lady Sings the Blues.
Brokaw had a 48-year relationship with Cosby, which began with the 1965-68 NBC series I Spy and continued through films, other television shows, commercials, albums, books, comedy tours and personal appearances. Cosby, who has been accused of sexual assault by dozens of women, left for CAA in October 2012.
Through the years, Brokaw said he was offered opportunities to run movie studios and networks. “I always said no,” he said in the Rensin book. “I wanted to stay at William Morris because I respect and love the company. I appreciate what they did for me. We’re the oldest company in the business, and the sky was always the limit.”